There is, as all of us who share this continent know, not one Africa but many. This is the reality of this continent that we are both so proud to be part of. This diversity inspires us and propels our development. This diversity also shows the folly of those who continue to pretend that everything on our continent is negative.
We are not fooling ourselves. We accept that poverty, illness, hunger, instability and conflict remain in places major problems. Despite important progress, the Millennium Development Goals are still out of reach. But we simply don’t accept the systematic afro-pessimism that some try actively to spread.
Africa has problems. But not everything is tragic. Africa is full of resources, potential, entrepreneurs and successes. Economic growth in sub-Saharan Africa has averaged four per cent over the last decade - higher than in Europe, the US or South America. At this rate, average living standards will double in the next 15 years. By the end of this year, it is forecast there will be 500 million cell phones on the continent - more than the total population of the European Union.
Even more importantly, we now know the way forward. It is clear that access to clean water, schooling and basic health care are crucial to improving life chances. We understand as well that the key to addressing these challenges lies within our own continent.
The international community has a role in supporting these efforts and we encourage it to do so. But our problems can’t be solved by rigid and separate solutions imposed from the outside, even when this happens with very best of intentions. They need leadership and action at both the national and local level.
In particular, we have learnt that development will be more effective and efficient if shaped by - and centred in - communities. We need to place more responsibility and power in the hands of local people and organisations so they can draw up and put into practice programmes which reflect the priorities of their community and the diversity of our continent.
This approach, where it has been followed, has already produced very encouraging results. It is, for example, at the heart of the Millennium Village Project, to which we are both deeply committed. Efforts are focused at a local level, village by village. The key decisions are made by the community, with help and advice from national and international partners. Problems are tackled together, not in isolation.
This approach necessarily means that the priorities of every Millennium Village are different. But the focus is on bringing together practical, effective and low-cost interventions such as anti-malaria bed nets, wells, fertilizers and modern seeds. Millennium Promise, which set up and oversees the initiative, is also determined to share lessons so each village learns from each other’s successes.
The first Millennium Village is still only five years old, but the initiative now covers around half a million people in ten African countries, including Rwanda. Progress so far is significant. Maize yields, for example, have increased by an average of 300 per cent. This is one of the reasons why the communities taking part have recorded a 35 per cent fall in chronic malnutrition in the youngest children.
We have seen as well how the widespread provision and use of bed nets in the Millennium Villages has cut the prevalence of malaria by 60 per cent. The early results also suggest that those who live in these communities are now three times more likely to have access to drinking water.
These are striking early results. They have been achieved at a modest cost – around $60 per person, per year - shared between governments, international institutions, NGOs and local communities.
The results vary between villages due to differing locations and priorities. But these stories of success deserve to be heard and the Millennium Village Project model should be spread to more communities. After all, the results are not that surprising. It is obviously more sustainable, as we are seeing now, to help a local community to feed itself, rather than give it traditional aid.
The Millennium Villages are, of course, not the only answer but the results show they offer real hope for the future. By putting local communities in control, they also provide solutions which meet the needs and ambitions of some of the many Africas which share our continent.
Youssou N’Dour is the lead singer of Super Etoile and the CEO of Group Futurs Media, Senegal
Amadou Ibra Niang is the director of the MDG Centre for West and Central Africa at the Earth Institute, Mali.